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What is it to be Irish? Negotiating National Identity after the Troubles

Dr Bodh PrakashDr Bodh Prakash is an Associate Professor of English at the Ambedkar University, Delhi. He was recently a Visiting Research Fellow at the Trinity Long Room Hub.

Having spent his research career examining the fictional representations of the partition of India, he has now turned his attention to the Irish Troubles and to the literature inspired by the conflict in Northern Ireland. Through his work on literary representations of conflict he explores diverse themes such as national identities, class, memory and gender.

Drawing on the parallels between the Indian partition and the Irish Troubles, he seeks to engage in a comparative study looking at the historical and social contexts of the two, leading him to some interesting observations about the modern nation state.  

Beyond Partition: the Modern Nation State

‘The Indian partition was really the outcome of a very illogical idea that a religious community constitutes a nation,' says Dr Prakash when discussing his latest research project looking at the ‘Literary Representations of Partitions, India and Ireland: A Comparative Perspective.’ The partition of a country in which different communities, religions, philosophies, languages and cultures had co-existed and interacted with each other for centuries was nothing short of a monumental tragedy. But as Dr Prakash explains the challenge for the Indian nation today is how to preserve and nurture the pluralistic ethos of society in an environment of majoritarian assertion and homogenisation of identities. Referring to the partition which took place in 1947, Dr Prakash explains, ‘Pakistan progressively became an Islamic State since its raison d’etre was that Muslims were a nation, whereas India aspired to become a secular and democratic republic in which there would be no discrimination on the basis of caste, creed or gender.’

'India is a multi-cultural society with a tremendous diversity of peoples, cultures, languages, religions etc., so just to be able to keep it together within a federal democratic structure is a huge challenge.’ The strong democratic traditions laid by the  founding fathers and the constitutional guarantees have been extremely important factors in keeping the nation together during a period that has witnessed the assertion of strong regional and community identities in the period after Independence. The nature of Ireland’s religious affiliations which fuelled the Troubles have also had a lasting impact on what would reinforce Ireland’s national make-up.  Dr Prakash explains that the Irish Republic, after Partition, was essentially characterised by a Catholic ethos and identity. ‘For me, the idea that a nation can be constructed on the basis of a single faith is very problematic.’ Dr Prakash, however, believes that identity has been closely entwined with religious affiliation in Ireland for a long time, something which is perhaps now changing. ‘What is it to be Irish? That, I think, is a very complex question because how do you define Irish identity? How are the Irish defined by Catholicism – if at all? Is the pre-Catholic period also a part of Irish culture and identity?'

Speaking of his research objectives for this project he talks about a shift in focus: ‘my interest has actually moved beyond partition to the whole idea of diversity – it was a connected idea – because I was looking at the challenges to a modern nation state, to the conception of a pluralist modern nation state.’ If identities are not based solely on religion, or Catholicism as in the case of the Irish Republic, then Dr Prakash asks, ‘is it an issue of class? Are there class affinities which go beyond the religious identity which go into the construction of an Irish nation?’

Dr Bodh Prakash speaking at the Ireland-India ConferenceIreland in a Global World

According to Dr Prakash, ‘Irish identity is being re-defined in a globalised context so people may define themselves as Irish culturally in terms of certain cultural practices but for all other purposes, they would identify themselves as European.’ He says that speaking with Dr Tom Walker, Trinity School of English, led him to the idea that Ireland has moved from a religious definition of the Irish nation to a ‘post-national identity.’ Ireland is now part of a larger world which enjoys its global personality.

Talking about Belfast and this post-national identity, Dr Prakash shows how this is now reflected in the literature after the Troubles. ‘Belfast is reconfigured as a post-national cosmopolitan space. That transition is telling us something about how, in the literary imagination or the representations of Belfast, the change has been negotiated. It’s no longer a world where you were stuck and people were running away from Belfast. Now Belfast is portrayed as a global city, a European city where people are thriving – it’s a hub of activity.’ Looking at the later novels of Glen Patterson, Dr Prakash says that ‘Belfast is reconfigured as a post-national cosmopolitan space.’

As Dr Prakash explains, this ‘recasting’ of Belfast is also a post Peace Agreement phenomenon. It is symbolic of this new phase after the Troubles, and suggests that cultural and religious identities are perhaps moving towards a phase of being less ‘antagonistic.’ He is also aware that the recent decision by the United Kingdom to leave the European Union presents a set-back for relations between North and South, although having spoken to people on his research visits to Belfast he senses that a new border is far from what people want.  He believes that people have taken for granted the significant progress and close cooperation that has been achieved within the context of the European Union. ‘Many of us in South Asia look at the European Union as a possible model of regional co-operation. We don’t have roads going across borders, we don’t have communications going across borders, and we don’t have academic exchanges across borders.’

Representations of the Troubles

While Dr Prakash likes to focus on the popular ‘Troubles thriller’ of the time, he acknowledges that many would consider this not to be very ‘literary’. ‘I use a lot of mainstream cinema, I use popular literature – I’ve always believed that those kinds of representations, although you have to deconstruct them, they tell you something very essential about society.’ In studying the Troubles thrillers he discovered more about the conflict in Northern Ireland, much of which was based in the urban centre of Belfast. ‘The Troubles thriller is a very representative genre that gets tied to an international climate of secrecy, spies and paranoia. This was particularly so during the Thatcher and Reagan period where you have MI5, the CIA and the KGB active across the world.’ He is also interested in how these works, as he sees it, are a follow on from earlier representations of Irish subversives, which goes back to the early 20th century but gets amplified in this genre of the Troubles thriller. He also speaks of the ‘nationalist romance’ – which he describes as a ‘love across the divide.’  This type of literature symbolises ‘a healing or coming together of communities who are otherwise divided.’

According to Dr Prakash, literary texts have often challenged statist ideologies and ‘official nationalist’ discourses through their use of progressive and secular representations. ‘The idea that identities are constantly negotiated as a consequence of social, political, historical and cultural transformations is precisely what my research seeks to establish through a study of literary representations of partitions in post-colonial states.’ While he refers to the similarities between India and Ireland post-partition in terms of the reconfiguration of the nation and ideas of class, he believes that because Ireland was a settler colony, its predicament was much different from India – where the British never came to stay. But the lasting impact of partition in India and the Troubles in Ireland have significantly influenced many literary works, not just those whose focus is the conflict. ‘The accompanying violence and its afterlife in the newly constituted partitioned states inflects literary representations in myriad subtle ways and even in works where the Partition is not explicitly mentioned it casts its shadow in the quotidian life of society and quietly inserts itself into the process of identity formation.’

Contact: Aoife King, Communications Officer | Trinity Long Room Hub | | 01 896 3895